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Fleischer Studios
Industry Motion pictures
Fate Acquired by Paramount Pictures, reorganized as Famous Studios
Successor Famous Studios (fully owned subsidiary of Paramount Pictures, known as Paramount Cartoon Studios after 1956)
Founded 1921 (as Inkwell Studios)
1929 (as Fleischer Studios)
Defunct August 28, 1942
Headquarters Broadway, New York, New York, USA
Key people Max Fleischer (co-founder, producer/director/actor)
Dave Fleischer (co-founder, producer/director/actor)
Products Animated short subjects and feature films

Fleischer Studios, Inc., was an American corporation which originated as an animation studio located at 1600 Broadway, New York City, New York. It was founded in 1921 as Inkwell Studios (or Out of the Inkwell Films) by brothers Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer who ran the company from its inception until Paramount Pictures, the studio's parent company and the distributor of its films, forced them to resign in April 1942. In its prime, it was the most significant competitor to Walt Disney Productions, and is notable for bringing to the screen cartoons featuring Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Bimbo, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman. Unlike other studios, whose most famous characters were anthropomorphic animals, the Fleischers' most popular characters were humans.

Silent films

The company had its start when Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, which allowed for extremely lifelike animation. Using this device, the Fleischer brothers got a contract with Bray Studio in 1919 to produce their own series called Out of the Inkwell, which featured their first characters, the as yet unnamed Koko the Clown, and Fitz the Dog, who would evolve into Bimbo in 1930. Out of the Inkwell became a very successful series. As the Bray theatrical operation started to diminish, the brothers began their own studio in 1921. Dave served as the director and supervised the studio's production, while Max served as the producer. The company was known as Out of the Inkwell Films, Incorporated, and later became Fleischer Studios in January 1929.

Throughout the 1920s, Fleischer was one of the top producers of animation, with clever humor and numerous innovations including the Rotograph, an early photographic process for compositing animation with live action backgrounds. Other innovations included Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, sing-along shorts (featuring the famous "bouncing ball"), which were a sort of precursor to Karaoke. From May 1924 to September 1926, the studio used Dr. Lee De Forest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process to produce 19 early cartoons with synchronized sound tracks, including Come Take a Trip in My Airship, Darling Nelly Gray, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly and By the Light of the Silvery Moon. The Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes series ended in 1927, but returned as the Screen Songs series from 1929 to 1938.

Sound and color

Betty Boop, from the opening title sequence of the earliest entries in the Betty Boop Cartoons series.

With their earlier experience with sound, Fleischer Studios made the transition with ease. Their production and distribution deal with Paramount allowed to expand on their song film format in their new Screen Songs, a continuation of the earlier Ko-Ko Song Cartunes. The first of these was The Sidewalks of New York, released on February 5, 1929. In October of that same year, the Fleischers introduced a new series called Talkartoons. Earlier entries in the series were mostly one-shot cartoons, but Bimbo would become a staple of the series. Bimbo was upstaged by his girlfriend, Betty Boop, who quickly became the star of the studio, and by August 1932, the Talkartoon series was renamed as Betty Boop cartoons; Fleischer Studios also gained more success by using Cab Calloway in three Betty Boop cartoons, Louis Armstrong, and Don Redman each featured in separate cartoons. Betty was the first featured female character in American animation, and she reflected the distinctive adult urban orientation of the studio's product.

The studio's initial successes began to turn as the 1930s continued. In 1934, the Hays Code was enacted in Hollywood, which resulted in severe censorship for films. Betty's sexuality was neutralized, and much of her charm was lost. At the same time, the Hays Code affected the tone of Paramount's films. Paramount had also gone through three reorganizations from bankruptcy between 1931 and 1936. And the new management set out to make more general audience films of the type made at MGM, but for lower budgets. This change in content policy affected the content of cartoons that Fleischer was to produce for Paramount, who was urging Fleischer to consider emulating Walt Disney's cartoons. The most notable example of the Fleischers' adaptation of the Disney style was their Color Classics series, which was essentially a copy and direct parody of Disney's Silly Symphonies.

The Fleischers' success was further solidified when they licensed E.C. Segar's comic strip character Popeye the Sailor for a cartoon series of his own. Popeye eventually became the most popular series the Fleischers ever produced, and its success rivaled that of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons. Three Technicolor Popeye featurettes were produced in 1936, 1937, and 1939, and were billed in many theatres alongside with or above the main feature.

Later period

The Superman series, Fleischer Studio's most successful late period project.

Fleischer Studios' efforts to emulate the Disney studio culminated in the production of animated feature films, following the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Paramount loaned Fleischer the money for a larger studio, which was built in Miami, Florida to take advantage of tax breaks and to break up union activity resulting from a bitter 1937 strike. The new Fleischer studio opened in October 1938, and production on the first feature, Gulliver's Travels, went from the development stage into active production.

Upon its Christmas 1939 release, Gulliver had a decent showing at the box office, although the quality of the story and animation was far behind that of the film it tried to emulate, Snow White. Between the release of Gulliver and the follow-up feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), the Fleischers produced their best work from this period, a series of high quality shorts based upon the comic book superhero Superman.[1] The first short in the series, simply titled Superman, had a budget of $50,000,[1] the highest ever for a Fleischer theatrical short, and was nominated for an Academy Award.

However, this late success did not help the studio lift its financial trouble. The expanded staff of the new Miami studio created a high overhead, necessitating steady production. A number of the shorts turned out during this period, such as the continuing Popeye shorts and a 1941 two-reel adaptation of Raggedy Ann and Andy, maintained a high level of quality. Others, like the Stone Age shorts, and the various Gulliver spin-off series, were among the studio's least successful output.

Acquisition by Paramount

As profits dwindled, the Fleischers had to frequently request loans from Paramount and eventually had to surrender their shares of the studio. Even worse, Max and Dave were no longer speaking to each other as a result of professional and personal disputes.[2] Paramount had both Fleischers submit a signed letter of resignation, to be used at Paramount's discretion, in order for the Fleischer Studio to receive financing for the 1940–1941 film season. On May 24, 1941, Paramount called their loans and assumed full ownership of Fleischer Studios, Inc.[3] The Fleischers remained in control of production through the end of 1941.

Mr. Bug Goes to Town was finally released on December 5, 1941. Its release fell just two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II. Mr. Bug failed to get a general release, and while it was made within its $500,000 budget, its costs could not be recouped. While Dave Fleischer was in Hollywood supervising post-production on Mister Bug, Max Fleischer sent a telegram to Paramount explaining that he could no longer work with Dave, and Paramount produced the letters of resignation. As a result, the Fleischers were removed from control of the studio [3] and Paramount formed a new company, Famous Studios, as a successor to Fleischer Studios in mid-1942. The last cartoon produced at the Fleischer studio was from the Popeye the Sailor series, "Baby Wants a Bottleship".

Dave Fleischer moved permanently to California, and in April 1942 became head of Columbia's Screen Gems cartoon studio. Max Fleischer went on to become Head of the Animation Division of the Jam Handy Organization, and Sam Buchwald, Isadore Sparber, Dan Gordon, and Max Fleischer's son-in-law Seymour Kneitel became the new heads of Famous Studios, which was moved back to New York by 1943.[3] The Fleischers were never a major force in the industry again, but their films and characters have remained popular. By the 1980s, the Fleischers were recognized as the animation pioneers that they really were. Fleischer Studios is based in Los Angeles today, and handles the merchandise licensing of Betty Boop and several other original Fleischer characters.

Copyright status

Popeye and Olive Oyl in the Fleischer Studios Popeye the Sailor cartoon A Date to Skate (1938), one of many Fleischer cartoons now in the public domain.

The issue of rights to the Fleischer/Famous Studios cartoon library is complicated.

U.M.&M. T.V. Corp./NTA/Republic

With the exception of the Superman and Popeye cartoons, Paramount's cartoon library from prior to October 1950 was originally sold to a company called U.M.&M. T.V. Corp., which altered the original negatives to a majority of the black-and-white cartoons and modified their original front-and-end credit sequences. For the color cartoons they had a chance to retitle, they created new but cheaply done credits.

Before they could modify all the Paramount cartoons they acquired, the company was bought by National Telefilm Associates, also known as NTA. This company had a different way of modifying the color cartoons in their library. Instead of creating entirely new opening/closing sequences, NTA replaced the Paramount logos with their own, and on other title cards, all references to Paramount, Technicolor, Cinecolor, and Polacolor were replaced with black bars, including the original copyright notice. NTA placed a U.M.&M. copyright on the end NTA logo.

NTA changed its name to Republic Pictures in 1984.

Today, Paramount (through Republic, which the studio's parent company, Viacom, acquired in 1999), in a twist of irony, now owns the original elements to its 1927–September 1950 output they themselves originally released (in addition to the April 1962–December 1967 non-Comic King shorts they have retained the rights to).

Paramount now also owns the theatrical rights, while Lionsgate Entertainment (Republic's video licensee and successor to Artisan Entertainment, previously LIVE Entertainment) holds the home video rights, and Trifecta Entertainment & Media now holds most major TV rights on behalf of Republic/Paramount (aside from other major and minor/low budget film, TV, and video companies that distribute the public domain cartoons)--CBS Television Distribution (as well as its predecessor companies Paramount Domestic Television and Worldvision Enterprises) formally held such TV rights until 2009.

However, the copyrights for much of these cartoons (including the Color Classics series, the Screen Songs series, and Gulliver's Travels) were not renewed by NTA. As a result, the films entered public domain. Mr. Bug Goes to Town and the Betty Boop series are among the few films that remain under copyright to Republic.

Popeye and Superman

The Popeye series was acquired by Associated Artists Productions (a.a.p.), which later became part of United Artists (for info on the Popeye retitling, see the a.a.p. article) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Turner Entertainment, after failing to buy MGM outright, settled for ownership of the library, including the Popeye cartoons, in 1986. A number of Popeye cartoons have also gone public domain, but not nearly as many entries as other Fleischer series due to better copyright management on UA's part. Popeye's trademark has been strictly enforced over the years by King Features Syndicate.

The Superman series reverted to National Comics after Paramount's rights to the character expired. TV syndication rights were initially licensed to Flamingo Films, distributors of the 1950s Superman TV series. All 17 entries in this series would enter the public domain in the late 1960s-early 1970s, when National/DC failed to renew their copyrights.

Both of these series are now under the ownership of Warner Bros. Entertainment, a subsidiary of Time Warner. WB bought the original film elements to the Superman series in 1969 after buying DC Comics. Then in 1996, Time Warner bought out Turner, giving WB ownership of the Popeye series, although technically speaking these two franchises are owned by the various units of WB (Turner and DC, respectively).

Video availability

Most of the Fleischers' color public domain films have been widely available on video since the 1980s, often on inexpensive (and poor quality) videotapes sold in supermarkets and department stores as parts of collections of other public-domain cartoons. Both animation fans and the UCLA Film and Television Archive have worked to give the classic Fleischer cartoons the credit they deserve, and high-quality restored editions of the Fleischer cartoons have also been made available on pay-cable, home video and DVD. Many of these restored prints include the original front-and-end Paramount titles.

Roughly a quater of the entries in the Betty Boop series, and most of those in the Out of the Inkwell/Inkwell Imps series have also entered the public domain, though they are not as widely available because of the popular belief among today's video producers that black-and-white and silent cartoons in general do not appeal to young children. Some of these cartoons have also appeared in restored versions (mostly with their original credits).

Although there were official releases in the late 1980s of Betty Boop compilation VHS and LaserDisc box sets by Live Entertainment, and select Superman cartoons by Warner Home Video (as part of separate VHS and LaserDisc collections of episodes from The Adventures of Superman TV series of the 1950s), it would take longer for any official DVD releases of the Fleischer cartoons due to Republic's ownership and video license changes, the potential film and/or digital restoration costs, and the financial viability as the result of releasing restored versions.

Warner Home Video has released all of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons in three volumes as part of the Popeye the Sailor DVD collection.

There have been some notable video releases for the Superman series, among the best reviewed of these was a 1991 VHS set produced by Bosko Video, titled The Complete Superman Collection: Golden Anniversary Edition - The Paramount Cartoon Classics of Max & Dave Fleischer released as two volumes which featured high-quality transfers from 35mm prints.

At least two separate versions of the Superman series was released on DVD, both of which feature all 17 original episodes:

  • The Complete Superman Cartoons — Diamond Anniversary Edition (released in 2000 by Image Entertainment, this DVD was a re-issue of the Bosko Video tape set)
  • Superman Adventures (released in 2004 by Platinum Disc Corporation).

A third (and more "official") compilation using restored and remastered materials was released in November 2006 by Warner Home Video as part of their DVD Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition|box set of Superman films. Recently, Warner gave these Superman shorts their own stand-alone DVD release using the same remasters as in 2006.

VCI Entertainment/Kit Parker Films' DVD compilation of all the Color Classics entitled Somewhere in Dreamland, which includes only a fraction of shorts remastered from 35MM, but otherwise taken from the best available sources Kit Parker could provide VCI, and digitally recreating the original front-and-end Paramount titles, was released in 2003. Animation archivist Jerry Beck served as consultant for this box set, as well as providing audio commentary for select shorts.


The loose, improvisatory animation, frequently surreal action (particularly in films such as Snow White and Bimbo's Initiation), grungy atmosphere, and racy pre-Code content of the early Fleischer Studios cartoons have been a major influence on many underground and alternative cartoonists. Kim Deitch, Robert Crumb, Jim Woodring, and Al Columbia are among the creators who have specifically acknowledged their inspiration.

Much of Richard Elfman's 1980 cult film Forbidden Zone is a live action pastiche of the early Fleischer Studios style.

In 1985, DC Comics named Fleischer Studios as one of the honorees in the company's 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great for its work on the Superman cartoons.[4]

The style of Fleischer was used to 1995 animated series The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat.

Fleischer Studios today

Today, Fleischer Studios operates as a company which continues to hold to the rights to Betty Boop and associated characters such as Koko the Clown, Bimbo and Grampy. It is headed by Max's grandson Mark Fleischer who oversees merchanding activities. But unfortunately don't holds any rights the cartoons.[5] Fleischer Studios utilizes King Features Syndicate to license Fleischer characters for various merchandise.[6]


*:(all works are in) public domain
#:some works are in public domain
**: Inherited by Famous Studios

Theatrical shorts series

  • Out of the Inkwell (1919 – 1926; earlier entries produced by John R. Bray from 1918 to 1921)
  • Fun from the Press (1923)
  • Inklings (1926)
  • Inkwell Imps (1927 – 1929)
  • Song Car-Tunes (1924 – 1926)
  • Screen Songs (1929 – 1938)
  • Talkartoons (1929 – 1932)
  • Betty Boop# (1932 – 1941)
  • Popeye the Sailor# (1933 – 1942)**
  • Color Classics# (1934 – 1941)
  • Hunky and Spunky# (1938 – 1941)
  • Animated Antics (1939 – 1941)
  • Stone Age (1940)
  • Gabby (1940 – 1941)
  • Superman* (1941 – 1942)**

Two-reel shorts

  • Darwin's Theory of Evolution (1923)
  • The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923)
  • Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy (1941)
  • The Raven (1942)

Feature films

  • Gulliver's Travels* (1939)
  • Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941)

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Barrier, Michael (1999). Hollywood Cartoons. New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 304.
  2. Beck, Jerry. "Fleischer Becomes Famous Studios". Cartoon Research. http://www.cartoonresearch.com/paramount.html. Retrieved 2007-06-21. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Barrier, Michael (1999). Hollywood Cartoons. New York: Oxford University Press. Pgs. 303-305. ISBN 0-19-516729-5.
  4. Marx, Barry, Cavalieri, Joey and Hill, Thomas (w), Petruccio, Steven (a), Marx, Barry (ed). "Fleischer Studios Superman Animated" Fifty Who Made DC Great: 20 (1985), DC Comics
  5. http://www.fleischerstudios.com/history.html
  6. http://www.fleischerstudios.com/contact.html

External links

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